A Popular Barnard Professor Looks to Politics

Professor Randall Balmer is the kind of guy you’d want to be your elected representative. Come Nov. 2, we will see whether or not the town of Ridgefield, Conn. feels the same way.

Balmer, the well-liked head of Barnard’s religion department, is running for state representative from Ridgefield against a three-term Republican who has never had a challenger. Ridgefield, according to Balmer, is a two-to-one Republican town that resident and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast has called “very ‘ye olde.’”

“I’m having a great time,” Balmer said, sitting in his Southwestern-themed office in Milbank Hall. “That’s not to say there haven’t been discouraging days. ... I’ve been called an atheist, said to have a ‘murky past’ ... the only thing you can do is laugh about it.”

Although he and his family have lived in Ridgefield for less than three years, Balmer was asked last May by the Democratic Town Committee to run against incumbent state representative John Frey. In a town where tradition holds strong, “people were just furious” when Balmer announced his candidacy, he said. In his first attempt at elective office, he ran last fall for a seat on the Board of Education and lost by just four votes.

But none of this has stopped Balmer.

Politics, Balmer said, are the natural extension of his scholarly work, or what he feels is his role as a “public scholar.”

“I never wanted my scholarship to become so recondite that I couldn’t communicate with a larger audience,” he said.

Indeed, in the last 20 years Balmer has shown his commitment to that idea. He has given lectures at Chautauqua and the Smithsonian, written opinion pieces in The Nation, The New York Times, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and produced documentaries for PBS, one of which, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, received an Emmy nomination.

“It’s a question for all scholars ... what our public roles, if any, should be,” said Courtney Bender, an assistant professor of religion. Scholars are frequently activists, but not elected officials, she said.

“I’m one of those hopelessly naïve people who’s not cynical about politics,” Balmer said, adding that he believes “a hard-working, well-intentioned politician can make a difference.”

He spent most of last summer going door-to-door in Ridgefield, a town of 22,000 north of Stamford near the New York border. “I don’t think there’s a better way to meet people,” he said. By the end of the summer he’d gone through two pairs of shoes and suffered two dog bites—one from a pit bull.

Though his campaign has been somewhat of a distraction from academia in the past months, Balmer maintains that teaching is his primary commitment. “This is my life,” he said. “I love education.”

Balmer noted that Connecticut has a tradition of citizen-legislators. If he wins in November, he will most likely have to make some adjustments to his teaching schedule next spring.

But, he said, he feels confident that he can work out an agreement that won’t compromise his teaching obligations.

Balmer is in his 20th year as a professor in Morningside Heights. Columbia hired him straight out of Princeton, where he graduated with his doctorate in 1985. When he was told he wouldn’t get tenure at Columbia, he was prepared to leave within a few years. But the religion department, which functions jointly at Columbia and Barnard, was determined to keep him and Barnard offered him tenure. He’s been at the University ever since the early 1990s.

“Randy’s a great person to work with,” Bender said. “He’s very conscientious.”
And though he’s up against some serious odds in his political race, Balmer maintains his optimism. One of his goals in the campaign, he said, is to expose his opponent’s record.

“Because he’s never had an opponent, no one knows about his record,” he said.
According to Balmer, undesirable elements of Frey’s record include his acceptance of money from Connecticut casinos, a “deplorable” record on the environment, and an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association.

Property taxes, a major legislative issue for Ridgefield residents, are also a key element of Balmer’s agenda. “For every dollar residents pay, they get back less than a nickel from the state,” he said.

Balmer said Frey is worried. “If I had a record like that, I’d be worried too,” Balmer said.
But if the town of Ridgefield decides in November that Balmer’s not its man, he won’t be devastated.

“In the political world, you’ve got two elections,” he said. “This is my second shot. It’s now or never.”

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